Whether the Weather

By now, you’ve all heard about the lovely Blizzard of 2010 here in the Nation’s capital. The snow barreled in and buried pretty much everything. I was snowbound for a few days, and even when I could get out, it was a bit of a struggle. On the upside, I got to watch a whole lot of episodes of “Dexter.” (I’m in the middle of season 3. No spoilers, please.)

On the downside, I haven’t been near an airplane since my solo on January 11th. And I still need to complete Stage Check 1.

Flight training can get discouraging, and if you’ve been reading the Flight School Diaries, you’ll know it’s a struggle to overcome weather, mechanical issues and my own confidence.

Fortunately, Flight Training Magazine, a publication of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, this month has an article all about what to do if you’re feeling discouraged. This could not have come at a better time for me.

So onward.

Now that the snow is no longer crowding the skies, I can get back to training. And with the encouragement of friends, family and the AOPA, I’ll be back in the cockpit in no time!

It will be interesting to learn how perishable the flight skills are after 5 weeks of no flying.

Stage Check 1 – Attempt 2

Today was supposed to be the second attempt at Stage Check 1. Alas, it was already snowing in the practice area and at surrounding airports. Since Stage Check 1 can’t be accomplished in the vicinity of the airport, today was yet another weather cancellation.

And with more snow in the forecast at the available times and days, I think this isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Stage Check 1 – Attempt 1

No aviation joy today, unfortunately, even though today’s weather in northern Virginia is amazingly aviation friendly. The phone rings about 7:26 this morning, and the caller ID photo of Dulles Aviation shows me that the school is calling me. Of course, I answer and it’s Tom, the aforementioned Chief Flight Instructor. Here’s how the conversation went:

“Good morning, Sir!”

“Good morning, Dan. This is Tom. Guess what?”

I peek through the venetian blinds (Q: How do you make a venetian blind? A: Poke his eyes out.) and see a clear blue sky surrounded by motionless trees. So my response is a little confused.

“Ummmm…. we’re on schedule to fly today?”

“The aircraft has a cracked muffler and there’s no other aircraft available.”

Poop.

We discuss options, including seeing if there’s an aircraft open for tomorrow. I change my mind and tell him I’ll call him later and schedule something for mid week. This way, if I choose to stay out late tonight, I won’t be penalized with being groggy from lack of sleep. Plus, looking at the terminal aerodrome forecast, or TAF (the long way of saying the weather forecast), it’s gonna rain tomorrow anyway.

He says “Sorry.”

I tell him “No worries. If this is the worst thing that happens to me today, I’ll be having a pretty good day. Thanks much! Bye.”

And that’s that. Back I go for another couple hours of somnolent bliss.

The downside is that I haven’t had a lesson since I soloed on the 11th. The upside is that I have more time to review the classroom material before Tom quizzes me. Given my past record as a student, I need all the help I can get!

How Long Is This Gonna Take?

A couple of people have asked if soloing was it as far as flight training is concerned.

It isn’t.

The first solo is about one third of the way through the flight portion of the training. After the solo comes the Stage One Check. This is like a mid-term exam for the first nine lessons. One must demonstrate proficiency in the skills taught during those first nine flight lessons. Upon successful completion of the stage check, the regular lessons start again. There are three of these stage checks at roughly equal intervals throughout the course of instruction.

After all the lessons and the three stage checks are successfully completed, then one goes in front of the Federal Aviation Administration examiner for the check ride. This consists of about an hour’s worth of grilling about FAA rules and regulations, then proceeds to the plane for the practical exam. It’s just you and the FAA guy in the plane for the better part of two hours. For this privilege, the examined gets to pay something in the vicinity of $400. If one demonstrates proficiency in all of the material, the examiner will sign off on a slip of paper which becomes your temporary license. At that moment, you’re a licensed pilot.

All this should take another 30-40 hours in the air, depending on how quickly I catch on and how much cash I’m able to gather together.

Bottom line: While ground school is over and done with, I still have roughly two thirds of the in-aircraft training before it’s all over.

But when it comes to aviation, the learning doesn’t stop with the issuance of the license. Even if I don’t get any other ratings, I still am required to go through training every two years in order to stay current. But I’ll need far more training than that in order to stay safe in the cockpit.

I Think Too Much

I have a friend who told me that I think too much. I suspect that’s probably better than not thinking enough, but essentially she’s absolutely right. I DO think too much. Unfortunately, I have two one-hour commutes each day along the freeways of Washington, DC and talk radio is getting REALLY tedious these days. So I have two hours to kill each day. Some days I just drive and some days I think.

Often I find myself reminiscing about the various adventures I’ve had since I came to this town: climbing the Washington Monument with my son, Jon; being trapped in an undisclosed location on the first anniversary of 9/11; helping kick off the 2003 NFL Season on the National Mall; running two miles around Roosevelt Island three times a week. All very cool things.

During my commute, I always pass by National Airport. It’s a modest airport by Dulles standards along the Potomac River on the Virginia side. As I head south in the afternoon hours, I can always observe the larger airliners departing National and heading north-ish along the Potomac River. And it always reminds me of something one of our ground school instructors mentioned the first day of class.

He said “Did you ever notice that when you see and airplane flying within sight, no one can resist watching it. Just look around at people.” With very few exceptions, he’s right. Nearly everyone will stop to watch an airplane slipping seemingly effortlessly through the air. It’s a compelling sight for most people.

I haven’t a clue why this is the case and that’s not what this is about. But it gives you an idea of some of the odd things which come to mind on my commute.

Today, I started to think about why it took me so long to start flight training when I knew from the time I was in single digits that it looked like something I’d want to do. So I started tallying up the aviation related memories I could dredge up. (Fair warning: While this may have been a fun exercise for me, I wouldn’t blame you if you clicked on the next email and bypassed this altogether. So Ahoy, matey! Prepare to be bored-ed.)

One.

I must have been younger than six when I saw my first airplane. I only have flashes of this memory, but those moments I remember are pretty vivid. In my hometown of Fostoria, Ohio, there was a small grass airstrip on the edge of town on state route 12. There was a house along the two lane road and the airstrip ran diagonally from the house back toward a corn field. I remember seeing the airplane and… Well, I just typed “… and thinking…” but I am not sure rational thought was a part of my repertoire back then. So I probably just gawked. I remember the airplane and in the nearby house, the aviation band radio that was squawking away. I’m not sure what the event was, or when. I just remember being out there. And every time I drive by that house, even though it looks so small and unassuming to me now, passing by there never fails to remind me of that airplane and that radio.

Two.

I was twelve when my Dad decided to go off to Vietnam for a year of fun and games at government expense. Halfway though his tour of duty, my Mother and Dad decided that we would all meet in Honolulu, Hawaii for his mid tour break, known as rest and recuperation or R&R. I was beyond excited. And yeah, I wanted to see by Dad and all that stuff, but I was going to fly in a JET! Awesome!

My Mother bought the airline tickets at a travel agency in a nearby town. They were typed by hand on a typewriter on tickets with red carbon paper in between the pages. When we finally started the flight, I was jumping around like a nutcase. So much so that my Mom had a tough time controlling my excitement and had to embarrass me into behaving. We flew from Columbus, Ohio to Chicago where we took on passengers. By then, it was evening and during the stop, and I wanted to know what was in the first class cabin that was so damned special that it was curtained off. So I meekly asked one of the stewardesses “Can I go up front and…” Before I could even finished my query, she smiled, said “Sure,” turned sharply and took me not just to the first class cabin, but up front in the cockpit to meet the pilots and see all the instruments. I kind of felt bad, because she didn’t have to go through all that trouble for me. I just wanted to see what was behind the curtain. (That must have been the year I got the demeaning lecture about being selfish.)

The flight terminated in Los Angeles, and we stayed overnight with one of my Mom’s nurse colleagues who had moved to Orange County some years earlier, then boarded a United jet to Hawaii. Foretelling my hormonally based adolescence, all I remember of this flight was how damned pretty the redheaded stewardess was. Even then, I was developing a healthy appreciation for redheads.

Three.

The Apollo program. At the time, it was everything to me. Every time there was a NASA mission, I wrote away to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland begging for any and everything they had on every mission. NASA was only happy to oblige a young boy’s fantasy by sending brochures, glossy publications, official transcripts of capsule communications, all of which I devoured and read and absorbed until I knew them by heart. I also wrote away for a hardback book that the Gulf Oil Company was selling about NASA and the Apollo program in particular. I had a tape recording of the Apollo 11 moon landing I made by hanging the microphone next to the TV speaker the moment it actually occurred. I would spend hours reviewing that tape while looking at the mission photos and following the transcript in that book. If memory serves, I literally read that book until I just plain wore it out. (A quick Wikipedia search led me to it’s title, “We Came In Peace.” Now I remember. Still gives me goosebumps thinking about that.)

Four.

Two words: Star Trek

Five.

At some point, the new Fostoria Municipal Airport opened replacing the grass strip over on State Route 12. This new airport featured a paved runway something like four thousand feet long, which seemed like a long runway to the uneducated Me. I don’t think I yet had my drivers license, so I must have been around 13 or 14 years old. I promised myself that I would get my pilot’s license before I got my drivers license.

Six.

Once you’ve been in the Army a little while, you find it wise not to tell people you were nominated to the Air Force Academy, but not appointed. Given the inter-service rivalries which exist, admitting that the Army was a second choice isn’t wise. So that little detail gets shoved back to the back of the brain where the old things go. But when I pull that one out, I remind myself why I chose Colorado Springs: I wanted to fly. I wanted to get into the space program. I wanted to enter the astronaut program. As an 18 year old kid from a well-respected east coast military school, I was fully aware of the enormity of the dream. But it was not to be. The political nominees have precedence over the honor school nominees and I didn’t get in. So I stayed another two years in military school by attending the junior college, and then joined Army ROTC for my last two years of college.

Seven.

The commander of the aviation company of the First Infantry Division (Forward) in Germany took me for a helicopter ride. He was a Vietnam era pilot and for some reason, he wanted to show off a little. He put that UH-1 through maneuvers that had my stomach alternating between my throat and my balls. And he seemed happy to have a non-aviator show such an interest in his work. Nice guy for a Major.

Eight.

Life happened.

Nine.

I retired after a total of 28 years in the Army.

Ten. The Present.

When I go back and think about it, it’s tough to really remember just how much I have always wanted to fly an airplane. For awhile there, this knowledge seemed to be relegated to a set of mere facts with no feelings attached. When life hits you, it usually his you pretty hard. The responsibilities, commitments and obligations take your focus and relegate those dreams to that place where the old things go. But every once in awhile, one is fortunate enough to escape, and if you’re paying attention, you can recapture that spirit. You can dream.

On Monday when I flew on my own for the first time, I was astounded at the matter-of-factness of the event. I was astounded that I wasn’t astounded. Same yesterday. It was no big deal. I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t more excited. But in reviewing during my commute the events which led me here, it surprised me how much I had forgotten. But the important things and feelings you never really forget. I guess one’s never too old or too committed to responsibilities to go back to that place where the old things are and see if any of them want to come out and play. Most are well entrenched in their complacency, but every once in awhile, one of those things shyly creeps out from among his shadowy cohorts, raises his hand meekly and says “Remember me?”

I remember. I absolutely remember. I’ve been thinking about you — and today, probably too much.

C’mere. I missed you.

 

Flight Lesson #9 – FINALLY!

The dogs decide to drop out of warp drive onto the king size bed en masse at 5:00 am.

I had set the alarm for 6:30 in anticipation of either trudging off to work again or dashing over to the airport at Manassas and try to fly. But 5:00 really was a little unreasonable. So with Charlie on my right and Gizmo on my left, I dozed off and on for the next hour or so until dozing placed itself firmly out of reach. Then I sat up and opened the laptop.

All weekend, I had been keeping an eye on the weather and had anticipated and hoped that today would cooperate. When I called up the current conditions at Manassas, it was clear, calm and colder than hell. So unless there was a temperature restriction of which I was unaware, today would be the perfect day to get up in the air.

I showered and dressed unusually warmly as the temperature was around 15F (-9C) and I was going to be spending at least a little time outdoors. So the thermal underwear went on. In spite of my recent post about the heater in a Cessna 172, today’s low temperature was going to be challenging even with the engine at full power. Long sleeved sweater and my backup leather jacket (my brown one that’s been around awhile is being relined!) completed the ensemble and off I went to the airport.

Today’s lesson was a rerun of a rerun of lesson 9, so I knew the drill. Even my instructor for the day, Chris, said so during our usual preflight chat, so we were off in no time.

I picked a good day, in spite of having to wait as long as I did to get to this date. Yes, the air was cold. All the better for aircraft performance. Yes, the air was calm. All the better for a smooth ride. The sky was so clear I could see all the way to Cancun. All the better to see clearly whatever it was I might be crashing into, but hopefully, that wouldn’t be an issue.

I taxi down, get clearance to take off and push the throttle forward. Once up to 55 knots, I eased back on the yoke and up into the blue sky I went. Effortless. Just as it should be.

Chris told me he wasn’t going to be saying much, rather, he was going to observe and help if I got stuck on something. As well, it would give me a closer sense of what it would be like without him in the right seat. This was wonderful because instead of trying to fly AND listen to an instructor, I was free to fly undistracted. I found that to be VERY helpful. This is one of Chris’s strengths as an instructor. From my perspective, a little silence goes a long way when you’re a student pilot.

During each of my three trips around the pattern, I spoke aloud all of the things I was doing, being sure to over inform Chris and make sure that no detail left unspoken, so I wouldn’t miss anything. I spent much of the time talking aloud to myself about not just what I was supposed to do but what I was observing. (It doesn’t hurt that I totally love listening to my own voice. Yeah, it’s an actor thing.)

For example, if I was banking too much, I said aloud “Too much bank!” and corrected. On final, if I were coming in above the glide path, I’d say “I’m high. Reduce power and pitch for 65 knots.” It helped me to cement in my head the things I needed to watch. (Sidebar: some think I have a lot of cement in my head already, so what’s a little more?) I would continue this practice when I was alone.

I did three laps around the traffic pattern at Manassas, performing the required go around without too much trouble. Once landed, Chris said “Taxi over past this jet here and stop over there just before the snow ends.”

No problem.

During the taxi, Chris is scribbling madly in my logbook entering the proper endorsements required before I can go up alone:

With a hearty smile and a wave, he hops out and heads toward the office.

Damn.

Awfully quiet in here.

Welp, I guess it’s all about me now. But then again, this is what I have been training for. So I adjust the radio, update the weather, ask for and receive taxi clearance and off I go.

So far, I am feeling pretty good. I had three very improved landings this morning and with the weather cooperating, if I were to have a good chance to succeed, this was definitely the day.

I get take off clearance, move off into the runway and take off smoothly. No problem.

Yet.

Now this is going to sound kind of strange, but in one way, I am kind of disappointed that nothing out of the ordinary happened, because then I’d have something more entertaining to write about. On the other and, I am completely delighted that nothing out of the ordinary occurred. The first landing was probably the best one I’ve done. Nice and smooth, nose of the aircraft up where it should have been. Nice! Sweet! Now for round two.

Second verse same as the first, except the landing was a little less smooth. But I got it down without losing any aircraft parts, so I went around for the third time.

While I was getting lined up for the third and last landing, I remarked to myself that I was starting to get tired, and this landing demonstrated that fact. It wasn’t hard, but I bounced a couple of times before it finally settled in.

Made it!

I taxied back, tied down the airplane and went inside where Chris and Brad both congratulated me. Chris had another student lined up after our lesson, so our conversation was necessarily brief and I was out the door and in the Prius before I knew it.

What’s worth noting is that I was genuinely comfortable; confident, but not cocky. Let’s face it, flying really IS serious business, and it’s not something to be taken lightly. But I had sufficient training. I had taken the time to repeat lessons where necessary, and the various mechanical and weather cancellations gave me opportunities to add to my confidence bank. So today, when the time came, I wasn’t terrified. I wasn’t nervous. I knew what to do and I did it. No sweat. And I could do it again right now.

In fact, I find myself wondering what all the fuss was about. I think that’s a huge testament to the quality of training I received from the folks at Dulles Aviation.

They told me that when it was time, I’d be ready.

They were right. Go figure.

Flight Training on I-95

When you’re at the beginning of the runway and taking off, one of the pilot’s goals is the keep the airplane rolling down the dead center of the runway. There’s a white dotted line there. Keep your nose wheel on it, and you’re good to go.

I had a dangerous thought today while I was driving.

I had the urge to drive my CAR down the center line for as far as I could.

In retrospect, probably not a good idea.